An amending Friday

Eyes down for the Lords' latest debate on the EU Referendum Bill.

This is not Gotterdammerung.

This is not the final battle between the forces of light and darkness (however defined) with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance. This is just the opening day of what looks likely to be at least a two-day committee stage consideration of the bill, with a report stage and a third reading, and possible Commons consideration of Lords amendments to follow.

Today peers begin to grapple with 80 plus amendments in 20 plus groups - and the debating landscape is changing fast.

Labour peer Lord Foulkes has pulled some of his amendments on issues like providing ballot papers in Cornish and Doric, (he's keeping the ones on Welsh and Gaelic) with the aim of focusing the debate more tightly on the key issues, he tells me.

Today's first big event is likely to be the vote on the former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Armstrong's amendment requiring that the question on the ballot paper be determined by the Electoral Commission - and that vote is expected to be at some point before (high) noon. Further groups of amendments will follow.

Watch out for any speeches from the two Conservative Peers, Lords Bowness and Deben (the artist formerly known as John Gummer) who've signed up to assorted amendments. And watch out, too, for a show of strength from Tory MPs gathered at the Bar of the House, to demonstrate the support for the Bill in the elected chamber.

Passing any amendments at all to the bill will make it far harder for it to become law - because, within a very tight timetable, they will have to be sent back to the Commons to be approved (or rejected) by MPs.

Part of the procedural game-playing today will be to get amendments on issues that cannot be easily grouped together, so that any Commons debate will have to have several sections. This would make a filibuster in the Commons a bit easier to run, since the rules prevent debates being timetabled and the Chair has to allow reasonable time for each group to be debated before being prepared to entertain a closure motion, to force the issue to a vote.

The more groups, the more time is taken up and the more chance there is that the bill will run out of time.

However, even talk of a Commons debate on Lords amendments to the bill represents some progress for its promoters; since extra debating Fridays have been allocated, there is now at least some prospect of it making it to third reading in the Lords.

Perhaps the Lib Dems and Labour are reluctant to be accused of overt blocking tactics. I hear that the delaying action will be led by Crossbench peers - heavyweight former diplomats and civil servants, with Labour politicians taking a supporting role and Lib Dems mostly staying out of the fray altogether.

I'd still be surprised if the bill made it into law; but not quite as surprised as I would have been a couple of weeks ago.

My best guess is that the whole exercise will be re-run again in the next parliamentary year, with the parliamentary theatre reaching its climax in the run-up to the next election, with an attempt to invoke the Parliament Act to force the bill through, and flush out Labour and the Lib Dems.

Mark D'Arcy Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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